courtesy of Mickie Mueller©
The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow'r;--
'Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight,
The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall make me a bride.
In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic
year, there are four lesser holidays as well: the two solstices, and the two equinoxes.
In folklore, these are referred to as the four “quarter days” of the year, and
modern Witches call them the four “Lesser Sabbats”, or the four “Low Holidays”.
The summer solstice is one of them.
Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to
the calendar creep of the leap-year cycle, the date may vary by a few days
depending on the year. The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the
Tropic of Cancer, and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of
the year. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished
at reading an ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot
over toStonehenge and sight down its main avenue,
they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, June 24. The slight forward
displacement of the traditional date is the result of multitudinous calendrical
changes down through the ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice
celebration, which is astronomically on or about December 21, but is celebrated
on the traditional date of December 25, Yule, later adopted by the Christians.
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their
days from sundown to sundown, so the June 24 festivities actually begin on the
previous sundown (our June 23). This was the date of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. Which brings up another point: our modern calendars are quite
misguided in suggesting that ‘summer begins’ on the solstice. According to the
old folk calendar, summer begins on May Day and ends on Lammas (August 1), with
the summer solstice, midway between the two, marking midsummer. This makes more
logical sense than suggesting that summer begins on the day when the sun’s
power begins to wane and the days grow shorter.
Although our Pagan ancestors probably preferred June 24 (and
indeed most European folk festivals today use this date), the sensibility of
modern Witches seems to prefer the actual solstice point, beginning the
celebration on its eve, or the sunset immediately preceding the solstice point.
Again, it gives modern Pagans a range of dates to choose from with, hopefully,
a weekend embedded in it.
Just as the Pagan Midwinter celebration of Yule was adopted
by Christians as “Christmas” (December 25), so too the Pagan Midsummer
celebration was adopted by them as the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24).
Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the Midwinter celebration
commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the Midsummer celebration commemorates
the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to
announce his arrival.
Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the
rather generic name of “Midsummer’s Eve”, it is more probable that our Pagan
ancestors of a few hundred years ago actually used the Christian name for the
holiday, “St. John’s Eve”. This is evident from the wealth of folklore that
surrounds the summer solstice (i.e., that it is a night especially sacred to
the faerie folk), but which is inevitably ascribed to “St. John’s Eve”, with no
mention of the sun’s position. It could also be argued that a coven’s claim to
antiquity might be judged by what name it gives the holidays. (Incidentally,
the name ‘Litha’ for the holiday is a modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon
word that means the opposite of Yule. Still, there is little historical
justification for its use in this context.) But weren’t our Pagan ancestors
offended by the use of the name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian
Well, to begin with, their theological sensibilities may not
have been as finely honed as our own. But secondly and more importantly,St. John himself was
often seen as a rather Pagan figure. He was, after all, called “the Oak King”.
His connection to the wilderness (from whence “the voice cried out”) was often
emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines. Many statues show him as a
horned figure (as is also the case with Moses). Christian iconographers mumble
embarrassed explanations about “horns of light”, while modern Pagans giggle and
happily refer to such statues as “Pan the Baptist”. And to clench matters, many
depictions of John actually show him with the lower torso of a satyr, cloven
hooves and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist is more properly a
Jack in the Green! Also obvious is that behind the medieval conception ofSt. John lies a distant,
shadowy Pagan Deity, perhaps the archetypal Wild Man of the wood, whose face
stares down at us through the foliate masks that adorn so much church
architecture. Thus, medieval Pagans may have had fewer problems adapting than
we might suppose.
it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after
sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and
warding off evil spirits. This was known as “setting the watch”. People often
jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets
were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop
poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering,
garland-bedecked bands were called a “marching watch”. Often they were attended
by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and
six hobbyhorse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary of
one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the
Customs surrounding St. John’s Eve are many and varied. At
the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this
shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in
the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so would certainly result in
either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a
great poet or bard. (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in the
first branch of The Mabinogion.) This was also the night when the serpents of
the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to
engender the “glain”, also called the “serpent’s egg”, “snake stone”, or
“Druid’s egg”. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield
incredible magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog)
went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer’s
Eve. According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween
for its importance to the Wee Folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a
fine summer’s night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at
the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But be sure to carry a
little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be “pixie-led”. Or, failing
the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside out, which should keep you
from harm’s way. But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the “ley
lines”, the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination. This
will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of
“living” (running) water.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over
the front door) with birch, fennel,St.
John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were
thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses,St. John’s wort, vervain,
and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve inSpain is called the “Night of the
Verbena (Vervain)”.St. John’s
wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of
divining a future lover.
And the glow-worm
With its silvery
And sparkled and
Through the night
And soon has the
young maid her love-knot tied.
There are also many mythical associations with the summer
solstice, not the least of which concerns the seasonal life of the God of the
sun. Inasmuch as I believe that I have recently discovered certain associations
and correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected to treat this subject
in some depth in another essay. Suffice it to say here, that I disagree with
the generally accepted idea that the Sun God meets his death at the summer
solstice. I believe there is good reason to see the Sun God at his zenith—his
peak of power—on this day, and that his death at the hands of his rival would
not occur for another quarter of a year. Material drawn from the Welsh mythos
seems to support this thesis. In Irish mythology, midsummer is the occasion of
the first battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaan.
Altogether, Midsummer is a favorite holiday for many Witches
in that it is so hospitable to outdoor celebrations. The warm summer night
seems to invite it. And if the celebrants are not, in fact, skyclad, then you
may be fairly certain that the long ritual robes of winter have yielded place
to short, tunic-style apparel. As with the longer gowns, tradition dictates
that one should wear nothing underneath—the next best thing to skyclad, to be
sure. (Incidentally, now you know the real answer to the old Scottish joke,
“What is worn beneath the kilt?”)
The two chief icons of the holiday are the spear (symbol of
the Sun God in his glory) and the summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in her
bounty). The precise meaning of these two symbols, which I believe I have
recently discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death of Llew. But it
is interesting to note here that modern Witches often use these same symbols in
their Midsummer rituals. And one occasionally hears the alternative
consecration formula, “As the spear is to the male, so the cauldron is to the
female.” With these mythic associations, it is no wonder that Midsummer is such
a joyous and magical occasion!
Document Copyright © 1986, 1995, 2005 by Mike
This document can be re-published only as long as no information is
lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or
used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be
approved in writing by Mike
Nichols. Revised: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 c.e. Please
click here to go to Mike Nichols home page.